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TokyoTreat Japanese Snacks BlogDowntown Tokyo: A History of Its Evolution!

Downtown Tokyo: A History of Its Evolution!

Karina IkedoKarina Ikedo
Published Time
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November 30, 2022
A night time shot of downtown Tokyo. It mostly featured red neon lights.

Downtown Tokyo, the nation’s capital, is actually a combination of many smaller neighborhoods that significantly transformed over time.

Tokyo became the capital of Japan, which led to a lot of the country’s commerce passing through the city. This helped the region to grow faster than other areas. Many neighborhoods in downtown Tokyo have changed a lot since the 1980s. The neighborhoods of Shibuya, Ginza, and Akihabara have gone through significant changes since then!

Akihabara in the 80s

“Electric Towns” in Japan developed into an otaku refuge in the 1980s when computers and video games first appeared. At that time, Japan was experiencing a prosperous bubble economy. It was a time when new technologies and store competition made Akihabara the preferred shopping destination for customers in downtown Tokyo!

But the area wasn’t always this way; in the past, it was an area famous for its radio component manufacturing. Over time, it expanded to include shops offering everything electrical. This ranged from household appliances to CD Walkmans and cassette players, earning it the moniker “Electric Town.”

A shot of Akihabara in 1976.
Akihabara was solely known as the ideal place for electronic goods. Image via Wikicommons

It had the atmosphere of a town of electronic wholesalers in the early 1980s. This was long before maids, anime, and other aspects of pop culture influenced the neighborhood and the world over.

Shops specializing in resistors, transistors, and other components for broadcasting equipment were available on the smaller side streets. These stores appeared to have largely disappeared.

Similar to farmer’s markets, Akihabara’s electronic stores would have their components exhibited outside the entryway. The stores were pressured to close as Chinese components became less expensive than those made in Japan!

Akihabara Now

Akihabara has seen substantial transformation today. If Akihabara is skilled in anything, it’s how to remake itself. The area today features a diverse array of corporate offices, retail stores, maid cafes, and themed cafes and restaurants.

If you like anime, comics, video games, and strange vending machines, you should definitely check out Akihabara. It’s full of towering billboards with anime characters, rows of gacha toy dispensers, and uniformed maids on the street.

A shot of Akihabara, a popular neighborhood in downtown Tokyo.
Akihabara is Tokyo’s mecca for manga and pop culture in general. Image via Shutterstock

Today, the area is a haven for fans of manga, anime, and other forms of connected otaku culture. It’s a terrific location for shopping, sightseeing, and experiencing some distinctive facets of Japanese popular culture.

There are specialist stores offering all kinds of goods, including figurines, Hello Kitty souvenirs, and retro video games. They also have manga collectibles, cosplay outfits, and other kitsch. There are many sights and sounds in Akihabara that will amaze you!

Shibuya in the 80s

This municipal ward was named after a family that lived there and built a castle in the eleventh century. Shibuya saw a significant transition when the Nippon Railway Company (present-day JR East) built the Yamanote Line in the late 1800s. This connected the neighborhood to other places in southern Japan.

Shibuya was initially connected to several important stations. Throughout the 1900s, additional railway lines would continue to connect to and from Shibuya, making it a popular transit hub!

A number of neighborhoods made up the Shibuya ward such as Hatagaya, Yoyogi, Hikawa-Shimbashi, Sendagaya, and Ebisu-mukai. The Washington Heights residences at Yoyogi Park were built for American soldiers near the end of WWII.

A eagle's eye view of Shibuya in the 1950s. It's in black and white, and there aren't that many skyscrapers yet.
Shibuya in the 1950s didn’t have that many skyscrapers yet. Image via Shutterstock.

Many of these residences were abandoned for 18 years before being demolished and rebuilt for the 1964 Summer Olympics. In the 1990s, Yebisu Garden was built in Ebisu, a popular neighborhood with izakaya (Japanese pub), ramen shops, and cafes. Ebisu was once known for brewing Yebisu beer. The construction of Yebisu Garden Place began in the 1990s.

Yebisu Garden Place is a lively area that has museums, Michelin-starred restaurants, an arcade, and a shopping center. In the middle of the 1970s, when Harajuku became known for its distinct trendiness in the clothes retail sector. In the 1980s, Shibuya’s cool youth first attracted international notice with their audacious fashion choices!

Shibuya is home to many information technology companies and to clothes merchants, particularly in the 1990s. Its name, “Bit Valley,” is a clever wordplay on the name “Shibuya”.

When translated literally, “Shibuya” means “Bitter Valley”. Another interesting aspect of Shibuya’s past is the acceptance of same-sex couples. Shibuya was the first and only municipal ward to legalize same-sex marriage in Japan in 2015!

Shibuya Now

Today, Shibuya is home to several well-known landmarks, businesses, and legends. It’s famous for its extensive commercial range of fashionable clothing, especially its flagship department store, Shibuya 109!

It also had many landmarks such as the Hachiko statue, the Shibuya crossing, and Meiji Shrine. Japanese youths in Shibuya often create iconic streetwear looks and use clothing to express themselves.

Many of the clothes that Japanese people consider to be “urban” are actually quite colorful and eye-catching. Shibuya is bustling with malls that provide these popular fashions in addition to more conventional styles such as Shibuya 109!

A daytime shot of Shibuya crossing, including Shibuya 109.
Shibuya is one of Tokyo’s most fashionable neighborhoods. Image via Shutterstock

If you want to watch locals having a good time, take a stroll around the Center Gai. It’s a calm promenade with a lovely view that leads to the Parco Supeinzaka Department Store. It references a nearby street of the same name, which translates to “Spanish Hill”. The entire area is a tribute to Spanish-style streets!

There are several high-quality clothing brands to keep an eye out for in Shibuya. The most popular ones are MUJI, Studious, and Toga. They are perfect for sensible shoppers, men, and avant-garde fashionistas respectively!

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Ginza in the 80s

Ginza (“silver seat”) is a lovely place with somewhat difficult origins. It was originally built on a swamp during the 16th century but was completely destroyed by fire in 1872. This gave the Meiji government the ideal opportunity to reconstruct it as the centerpiece of modern Japan.

A nighttime shot of Ginza in the 1980s.
Many people shopped in Ginza during the 1980s economic bubble. Image via Asian Historical Archive

At the time, brick was a then brand-new construction material in Japan. Therefore, the government recruited English architect Thomas Waters to rebuild the street in brick. Japanese structures are typically light, airy, and open, which makes them more visually appealing than functionally effective.

Ginza’s reconstruction into a Western marvel gave the area its notoriety. Its Georgian architecture was popular with residents, but not so much with tourists. They expected a more “Edo-style” landscape. Regardless, Ginza flourished as a newer and more modern city!

Ginza Now

The Ginza neighborhood in downtown Tokyo is well-known throughout the world as an upmarket shopping district. All of their stores are located on some of the most expensive real estate on Earth. Ginza starts north of Shimbashi and goes south of Kyobashi, west of Tsukiji, and east of Yurakucho.

A shot of the Wako department store in Ginza, a posh neighborhood in downtown Tokyo.
Ginza is home to some of the most luxurious stores in Tokyo. Image via Shutterstock

The backstreets of Ginza are a treasure chest of little shops and fine restaurants. However, Ginza never stops changing to keep up with the trends, offering cultured modernity, energy, and old-Tokyo metropolitan charm!

Tokyo’s buzzing districts have quickly and drastically changed over the years! Enjoy a peculiar and fascinating experience while strolling through the streets of Tokyo!

Do you have a favorite district in downtown Tokyo that you would want to visit? Let us know in the comments below!

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